The Data Revolution: Apocalypse or Brave New World?

A digital figure representing the data revolution

When you hear the term ‘revolution’, you might think of the American or French revolutions, crowds marching in the streets. The word ‘data’ brings to mind needing to back up your important documents, add multi-factor authentication onto your crypto wallet, and to sort out those holiday photos. When you put these two terms together, you get the data revolution.

A Data Explosion

There are many definitions of the data revolution. In a report by the UN Secretary General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group (IEAG), it is even referred to as an ‘explosion’, given the amount of data being produced as well as the growing demand for data from all parts of society. PARIS21 defines a data revolution as delivering the right data to the right people in the right format at the right time.

It’s part of the so-called ‘fourth Industrial Revolution’, which encompasses the rapidly growing use of data and technology across all industries. The amount of data being generated is doubling every two years, and it is estimated that 90% of the world’s data has been created in the last two years alone

The data revolution is happening right now, and we are only just at the beginning.

In the Beginning was Data

The word ‘data’ was first used (in English) in the mid-17th century, and the earliest recorded instance of data analysis – John Graunt’s study of death records – was in the 1660s. So this data revolution has been a long time in the making. 

Fast forward to search engines and the worldwide web, and now everyone has access to information previously not available to the average person. Everyone now has access to more digital information than they can process and data can be mined from almost anywhere by anyone with a computing device.

These information technologies have created a data monster, making more data available than one could ever have imagined.

2.5 quintillion bytes of data were created on the internet every day in 2020 – that is 2,500,000,000,000 million.

Some other mind-blowing statistics, or at the very least, interesting statistics, which are contributing to this data revolution include: 333.2 billion emails are sent per day, 5 billion Snapchat videos and photos are shared per day, and people spend $1 million per minute online.

There is an incomprehensible amount of data out there, and it continues to grow. This data is used for new business ideas, healthcare, transportation, and so much more. 

But concerns about the exploitation of all this digital data and privacy protection are causing growing unease. This applies in particular to the best-known part of the data revolution: the rise of big data.

The Dark Side of the Data Revolution

By ‘big data’ we mean large data sets, resulting from anything that can generate data in large volumes, from machines to video. This data is collected on social media, mobile phones, and public records, to name a few. 

Big data can prevent future cyberattacks, but the shady side of big data can overshadow the good. Hackers can gain access to big data sets, with one cyber attack occurring every 39 seconds, and thereby gain more information about people than would ever have been possible before.

In addition to these cases where cyber criminals access this big data, they could gain access to your personal and sensitive information to impersonate you or hold you for ransomware.

Big data has given rise to ever more advanced technology in the field of artificial intelligence, which relies on large datasets for machine learning. While this has great potential for good, it also causes uncertainty, as more and more things are ruled by algorithms that are opaque and outside democratic control.

Other warning signs pointing to the threat potentially posed by AI is how governments are using facial recognition for mass surveillance and not being transparent about it, nor getting consent to do so. 

Automation supported by artificial intelligence may also cause shifts in the labor market, causing job losses in established sectors and deskilling other kinds of work.

Time to Build a Bunker?

Not just yet. The data revolution is changing every aspect of our lives, from the way we communicate, do business, innovate, manage healthcare, and invest our money. Data is ruling the world and continues to increase in value, while allowing almost everyone to connect and be connected.

It may be too late to undo how the data revolution has remade our world, and probably we wouldn’t want to. At the same time, the problems associated with (big) data are only going to become more serious as the revolution progresses. As more and more people become professionally engaged in working with data – from computational researchers to data analysts, stockbrokers, marketing specialists and industrial engineers – it becomes increasingly important to develop ethical standards and reflections on what we are doing and where it is going. Choices made now can determine the course of the long-term technological future. It is up to us to decide what that horizon will be.